The Savior – Snippet 17
Toward evening, the column crossed the boundary into the Treville District. Abel was now in familiar country and began to make out landmarks he knew well. They would not be passing through his hometown, Hestinga, where his father had his headquarters as district military commander. Hestinga was seven leagues to the east at the end of the great Canal, which fed into Lake Treville. This was the widest portion of the Valley.
They would pass Garangipore, however.
For Abel, Garangipore would always evoke the odor of hyacinth.
It was the perfume of the woman he loved, Mahaut DeArmanville Jacobson. So many meetings here in Garangipore, over the past few years, him down from Bruneberg, her up from Lindron.
She was a woman wedded to a job she loved, a job that gave her meaning. She’d found her calling.
He would never deny her that.
They were doomed.
* * *
The vanguard of the column reached Garangipore on the second day of the march through Treville. The town was a large grain repository, a transshipment center, with barges traveling down the River and heavily laden carts heading up the River Road to the northeast. It was also the place where the Canal left the River and headed for Lake Treville. Since the River Road ran along the eastern side of the River here, the Canal cut it off. The Corps would have to board ferries to cross.
Third Brigade had been chosen to handle transport of the entire Corps. Von Hoff, knowing the ability and experience of his engineering company, had volunteered.
Which meant that, as executive officer for Third Brigade, it was Abel’s job to work with his engineers to be sure this happened securely and on schedule. Fortunately, this was a task that pleased Abel. The chief of the Third Brigade Engineers was also Abel’s friend, the third part of the triumvirate at the Guardian Academy that had included Abel and Timon Athanaskew.
Landry Hoster was his name. Like Abel, he was a Guardian reserve officer, until recently stationed in the Regulars. For the past six years, that posting was serving as Abel’s righthand man and chief of combat engineering of the Bruneberg Black and Tans. In his maintenance shop a new type of bullet was being manufactured. It was a bullet based on the work of the heretic priest Golitsin. While Law had condemned Golitsin to burn at the stake because he invented breechloaders — nothing was said regarding the cartridges they used. These were bullets with the percussion cap, gunpowder, and slug held together by a stiff cylinder of papyrus.
In many ways, Landry was the complete opposite of Timon. About the only thing they had in common was a fanatical devotion to duty. Timon did it because he was a believer. Landry did it because, as he’d once told Abel, he was having so much fun.
“Tell me we have boats, Landry.”
“We have boats, Major,” the engineer answered, “and a lot of them. The engineering advance team got here five days ago. We hired or requisitioned damned near every vessel in the province.”
Landry was a heavyset man, almost a head shorter than Abel. He wasn’t fat exactly, but he had a pudginess that never quite melted away and seemed almost a part of his character. Landry was thirty, two years older than Abel, and had risen through the ranks in the Delta District Regulars before being accepted into the Academy. In the swamps and bogs of the Delta, an engineer had to know his stuff.
Landry was a shy man at heart pushed into leadership. Abel figured he’d probably been bullied a lot and scapegoated when he was younger. If so, Landry had gotten past that by the time he got to the Academy. There was a quiet competence about him, and he always seemed happy, or at least amused, even in the middle of the hardest tasks. Abel had learned not to underestimate Landry’s core military skills, either. He was a magician when it came to math, siege weapons, the layout of battlements and forts — anything having to do with numbers, angles, and the use of space.
Sometimes, when an idea struck him, he had a tendency to overdo it, however. Abel surveyed the huge gathering of River boats along the Canal’s southern bank.
“Looks like a bit of overkill to me.”
“Hey, we’ll end up glad we have them, sir,” Landry said, but cracked his usual smile. “I kind of had an idea about lashing them side-by-side and planking them over to make, well, sort of a bridge, but when I brought it up, our wonderful brigade chaplain nixed my idea. Said he’d hate to see me burn at the stake the way that priest did. You knew him, didn’t you?”
“I knew him.”
“Breach loading rifles,” said Landry, shaking his head in wonder. “Insanity. No wonder they set fire to the man.” Landry gazed across the water and mused. “Wonder how he handled the back-blow. I’d of liked to see how one of those things worked before they burned them all up.”
“I know you would,” said Abel. “Let’s get those boats loaded and moving, Captain.”
Landry straightened and saluted. “Yes, sir.”
Abel spent the day directing traffic. Landry’s men handled most of the launches, but Abel found he was needed in five places at once to solve small but potentially march-slowing logjams. Most of all, he made sure no boat was overcrowded. He told the loaders to remind the men at least three times what capsizing would mean.
This close to the River, the Canal was crawling with carnadons. An overturned boat full of men and donts would bring on a feeding frenzy of horrific proportions.
Besides, almost none of the men could swim.
His own captains knew Abel and Landry well, and gave Abel no trouble. However, some of the company captains from the First and Second Brigades were complete and cursed assholes about the whole thing. They didn’t like the way Abel was running the operation. They took exception to the warnings in his standard lecture — a speech that was designed to be sure the men knew what might happen if they dangled their hands in the water. They rolled their eyes and made fun of his hardcore attitude, as if they knew better.
Let them think what they want so long as they do what I say, Abel thought. What difference does it make if they know or don’t know that I’m saving their cursed lives?
Abel had been near two men when carnadons tore them limb from limb. Neither experience was one he wanted to relive.
But the truth was he was too busy to care what was said behind his back. In the end, with the help of Landry Hoster’s extremely efficient engineering company, he managed to cajole and bully the entire Corps over — men, donts, wagons, and all. The trailing pack train of the Quartermasters Corps was waiting to cross behind them. They would use Landry’s boats, but they had their own officers to oversee the specialized transfer.
Abel wished them luck.
It was after sundown, but before nightfall. The cloud of dust kicked up by sixteen thousand men making camp for the evening glowed a dusky, golden hue. The murmur of a thousand rough conversations filled the air, along with a few shouts at donts and daks to get out of the way or get a move on. The Corps was spread up and down the northern banks of the Canal, since it was a readymade water source, and in spite of the fact it was carnadon infested.
He noticed that men were going in details to dip pails of water, and their companions were armed and vigilant.
Maybe he’d put the fear of Zentrum’s wrath in a few of them after all.
Abel unsaddled his dont and released her into a corral near the command area. Groelsh, the command master sergeant, who made the staff camp arrangements, had chosen a good spot on a rise that overlooked the troops in either direction along the Canal. Abel stowed his saddle beside the others on the makeshift corral railing. His pack and weapons he carried a short distance away. He put his rifle into the command staff rack, but kept the pistol in his waistband. He stowed his pack against the trunk of a small willow tree nearby. He slapped the pack to clear the sandy buildup on the canvas, but succeeded only in raising a cloud to further thicken the dust already hanging in the air. Ever-present insectoids buzzed around his head, but he ignored them.
He turned and looked down the rise at the Third Brigade encampment.
The flower-shaped sleeping circles of men were easy to see from this perspective. There were dozens of them — enough to fill the north side of the Canal as far as Abel could see from his position.
Then, something odd.
Farther along the Canal, there was a long line of men stripped down to bare chests. At the head of the line, a man stepped into a spray of water that came from an uplifted section of pipe supported on a wooden framework. He’d seen many such sod pipes before. They bent to a certain extent without breaking and were a staple of the irrigation system in the Valley.
Someone’s redirected the irrigation ram from downstream, Abel thought. After a moment, it came to him what was going on.
They’ve set up a shower for bathing.
The line was moving through at a steady clip, with one man standing under the falling water for a moment, then giving way to the next.
Not a bad idea, Raj said. This might be the last chance to get the stink off them until Progar.
Yeah, with muddy irrigation water, Abel thought. But it did look cool, at least.
Suddenly, around the pipe a cordon formed, a circle of men standing almost shoulder to shoulder. Some had bayonets detached from their rifles. Some had their bows notched, with arrows pointing down but at the ready.
What the cold hell were they up to?
Was there about to be a fight?
Another group of soldiers approached. There were about ten men, and they were trying to bypass the line and get directly in the water. Abel couldn’t hear it, of course, but one of their number stopped and spoke to a soldier in the cordoning circle. The other began waving his arms, then appeared to be shouting. After a moment, the man he was shouting at turned away from the cordon, his hands thrown up in disgust, and went back in the direction from which he’d come. The other line-jumpers followed.
Abel walked down the rise to the shower — slowly, he was in no hurry, and had a halfwatch to spare before the colonel would want him again — and found the soldier who had done the talking. Abel recognized him at once. He was the Monday Company first sergeant.
“First Sergeant, what was that about?” Abel asked.
“What was what about, sir?”
“That talk you just had with the soldier who turned around and left.”
“Oh, that? He was a First Brigade sergeant, sir. Didn’t you see his triple knots?”
“What did he want?”
“To take a bath.”
“To take a bath?”
“And this is the Third Brigade sod pipe?”
“Yes, sir. A field-ready high-quality bathing facility.”
“I see. What did you tell him exactly, First Sergeant?”
“I told him to get his stinking carcass and the rest of his trash back to their own camp or we’d gut the lot of them where they stood. I told him I’d see every thrice-damned Third Brigade soldier I’m fighting and dying with through this water before I let a drop of it touch a shitkicker from the First or Second. Sir.”
Somewhere in Abel’s mind, Raj Whitehall was laughing.
“All right, carry on, First Sergeant.”
Abel strode back up the rise to the command area. When he got there, von Hoff was standing gazing down in the same spot Abel had occupied before.
“What was that about?” he asked.
Abel told him.
The slightest smile crossed the colonel’s face. “I see,” he said. Then the smile became a scowl. “We have a very dirty task to perform, Major. I wish it was going to be that easy to wash ourselves clean.
Von Hoff turned away without waiting for an answer, and went back to the small lean-to he slept under. Having a tarp roof over his head was the only concession von Hoff allowed to his rank.
* * *
Abel sat on the rise for a long time and looked over the Canal as dusk became the dark of night. Soon he could see the lights of Garangipore across the water.
She might conceivably be there.
The Jacobsons had a villa in town, and Mahaut sometimes came up River from Lindron to oversee a particularly valuable shipment.
When she did, he’d often found a reason to come down and meet her. They got away from the compound to one of her maids’ apartments near the River’s edge.
Smooth stucco walls. A scuffed wooden floor with a carpet thrown across it. Fine linen sheets. The odor of hyacinth and lavender.
He would see her on his return. He had to.
He’d almost joyfully given over Cascade to his second and traveled back to Lindron when the reserve call-up had come.
But with her duties and his, they’d only managed to see each other every Mommsen moon or so. But that nine-month taste of being near her had been exhilarating. Only now, instead of cooling with distance, his desire for Mahaut had turned into a constant longing that was always in the back of his mind like the sounds of the night.
Blood and Bones! He should have killed Edgar Jacobson when he’d had the chance back in Treville, saved Mahaut the years of putting up with him. But blowing Edgar Jacobson’s brains out was not the way to Mahaut. He didn’t know the way. Maybe there wasn’t one. But if he couldn’t find it, he would carve the path himself.
Abel wasn’t particularly trying to keep his thoughts private at the moment or to remain in his Hideout. Nevertheless, Center and Raj maintained a diplomatic silence.